Spreading Holiday Cheer on the Cheap in San Francisco

Union Square Christmas Tree

San Francisco may be short on snowfall and reindeer, but come December, we're as holly-jolly a city as you'll find anywhere.  The City by the Bay is ready to spread some holiday cheer this season with trees, lights, music, and culture galore. Best of all, it's easy to get into the spirit no matter what your budget.  As a special holiday treat for you, we're rounding up the very best ways to make merry on the cheap in San Francisco this year. 

Christmas Trees


Union Square Christmas TreeFrom spectacular, sparkling giants to take-home stunners, San Francisco really goes green during the holidays.

Arguably the most famous Christmas tree in the city, the 80-foot fir in front of Macy's in Union Square gets decked out each year in more than 20,000 twinkling LED lights. Union Square is located just blocks from both HI-San Francisco City Center and HI-San Francisco Downtown, making it an easy destination for winter fun. For a cup of cheer with your tree-spotting, make the short walk from HI-Fisherman's Wharf to Ghirardelli Square. Pick up a hot chocolate at the outdoor shopping center's namesake chocolate shop, then pop outside and get festive around its towering central tree. 

The trees are smaller but the spirit's just as big over at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion, where a Bay Area volunteer group called the Guardsmen sets up its annual tree lot. More than just a one-stop Christmas shop, the Guardsmen tree lot is a winter wonderland. Get lost strolling through this veritable indoor forest, then pick up a holiday wreath or ornament for a good cause: all proceeds benefit at-risk local youth.

Holiday Lights

Macy's SF Holiday Window

Traditional holiday lights are nice and all, but here in San Francisco, we prefer our traditions with a twist. From HI-Fisherman's Wharf, wander over to Aquatic Park or Pier 39 on Dec. 13 and you'll see dozens of boats decked out for the holidays in a lighted boat parade (5:30 p.m.-8:00 p.m.).

If the holidays tend to stress you out, get zen this year instead at the Parol Lantern Festival and Parade. The 11th annual procession, whose theme will be “Enlightenment for All,” will feature over 1,000 ornamental holiday lanterns from the Philippines. Follow the glow from 5:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. on Dec. 14, starting in Yerba Buena Gardens and ending at St. Patrick's Church

And no matter what the day this month, there are plenty of places to see the city sparkle. The lobby of the Hyatt Regency hotel on the Embarcadero is a perennial favorite for bringing “snow” to the City by the Bay, in the form of 300,000 cascading white lights. The best part? “Snowfall” is open to everyone, no matter where you're staying the night. 

Westfield SF Centre DomeThere's more “snow” to be seen downtown on commercial thoroughfare Market Street, where lamp posts are topped with giant, illuminated snowflakes for the season. Near the intersection of Market and Powell Streets, duck inside the Westfield Shopping Centre, where free holiday light shows play out nightly using the mall's century-old glass dome as a backdrop. 

From the Westfield Centre, it's a quick walk over to the corner of Stockton and O'Farrell Streets, where Macy's vies for the distinction of “world's most adorable holiday window display.” Twirling mechanical ice-skaters, an illuminated Golden Gate Bridge, and real-life puppies and kittens from the SF SPCA all greet passersby from behind the glass. If you find your heart's been stolen by a furry little critter, visit the SPCA's pop-up adoption center inside the store, or make a donation with the volunteers outside. 

Music, Movies, and More

If it takes a viewing of your favorite holiday movie to make your spirits bright, the Castro Theatre has good news for you: throughout December, they'll be screening The Nutcracker in 3D, Home for the Holidays, Love Actually, It's a Wonderful Life, and even a special “Noir City Christmas” double-feature. A registered San Francisco landmark built in 1922, the theatre is a mainstay of the city's colorful Castro neighborhood. Today, the movie house is famed for showing classic flicks in an equally classic setting: think marquees, chandeliers, and even balcony seating.

If you'd prefer a little live-action cheer, December's the time to see pricey performances on a budget. Tickets for the longest-running musical revue in theatre history, Beach Blanket Babylon, typically run upwards of $50. But this month, the show's putting on special holiday-themed “caroling” performances at the Westfield Centre for free. Check out the mile-high hats, off-beat characters, and yuletide tunes on Saturday afternoons through Dec. 21. 

Even holiday performances by the San Francisco Symphony aren't out of reach on a traveler's budget this month. Tickets start at just $15 for the symphony's “'Twas the Night” holiday concert on Dec. 22, 23, and 24. For about $10 more, the Symphony has tickets for a host of other holiday performances, including a “Creole Christmas” with New Orleans' Preservation Jazz Band and screenings of The Snowman with live musical accompaniment. Check out the Symphony's calendar for a full listing of holiday concerts. The Symphony also offers a limited number of $20 day-of rush tickets for many performances. 

And if your plans include a stay at HI-City Center this season, get to know the staff and your fellow hostellers over music and candlelight on Dec. 8. The hostel will be hosting a special evening of caroling, complete with sweet treats and music from a live string trio. 

Christmas Creations

Westin St. Francis Sugar CastleCreativity's always in season in our fair city, but it really shines during the holidays. To score last-minute gifts for family and friends back home, skip the cheesy souvenirs and pick up hand-made clothing, jewelry, ceramics, paper goods, and much more at the Renegade Craft Fair Holiday Sale. The SF edition of this multi-city event, showcasing artists and crafters from the Bay Area and beyond, will take over the Concourse Exhibition Center on Dec. 22 and 23.

Feast your eyes on a different kind of handiwork all month long in the lobby of the Westin St. Francis hotel, where a 12-foot-high “sugar castle” is a sweet holiday tradition. The castle was originally constructed in 2005 and grows more ornate each year. This season, keep an eye out for sugary replicas of politicians, celebrities, and athletes hiding throughout the castle. You can walk to the Westin in less than 15 minutes from bothHI-San Francisco City Center and HI-San Francisco Downtown.


Union Square Ice Rink

Feeling a chill in the air? Try skating it off at one of San Francisco's two outdoor ice rinks. Head to the rink at the Embarcadero Center's Justin Herman Plaza to take a spin along the waterfront, or take a hint from HI's own Fiume Drummond Simnacher and show off your moves downtown at the Union Square Ice Rink

Whether you decide to lace up, cozy down, or get festive this month, we hope you'll get out and make the most of all the season has to offer! 

If You Go 

Stay at one of our three San Francisco hostels.


Check out a map of all the places mentioned in this story.